Astro Bob: See all five planets line up in order at dawn
This remarkable planet parade won't happen again until 2041.
It's been months in the making. Wait, I take that back. It's been years in the making. The last time we witnessed a similar planetary arrangement was back in December 2004.
For the next three weeks all five bright, classical planets will appear in a line in order of increasing distance from the sun in the dawn sky. Mercury leads the parade, hovering low above the northeastern horizon, followed by Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Even the Earth will participate, through its proxy, the moon.
The planets have already taken their places waiting for the moon to join them. That happens on June 18, when it passes several degrees south of Saturn. A slew of near-approaches and conjunctions follow: Jupiter on June 21; Mars on June 22; Venus on June 26 and finally Mercury on June 27. After the Mercury encounter, the moon peels off from the parade and re-enters the evening sky.
One of the best mornings to see the bunch will be June 24 (pictured at top), when the crescent moon fills out the line in a most picturesque way. All the planets will be bright enough to see with the naked eye, but you're likely to need binoculars to dig out Mercury from the twilight glow, so be sure to bring a pair. Another excellent opportunity occurs on June 26, when Venus and the filament-thin moon huddle in close conjunction about 2° apart.
The line of planets will span more than 100°, from low in the east-northeastern sky, where Mercury and Venus appear, westward to Saturn, located almost due south. That's a broad expanse! You can describe it as an alignment, but it might be better to call it a line, since they won't be bunched up on top of each other.
Capturing a photo of them all will require some extreme wide-angle optics. You'll need a 12-mm focal length lens for full-frame sensor cameras or a 10-11-mm lens for cropped sensors common in budget DSLR cameras. None of these is particularly cheap! A better alternative would be to take several photos of the scene with a standard lens and combine them into a single image using an imaging program like Paint (packaged with Windows 10/11), Mac OS Photos or Photoshop. Check Youtube for videos showing how it's done.
Mercury and Venus will appear only a few degrees above the eastern horizon, so it's critical to find a location with an unobstructed view in that direction if you want to see all five. Lakes, fields, ridge lines and other high points make excellent places from which to observe. The other three planets shine much higher up, making them a snap to pick out.
If you live in the southern U.S., the line will tilt upward more steeply. In combination with the shorter twilight at those latitudes, observers will see the planets a little higher and brighter in a darker sky. For those in the northern U.S., the planets will arc a little lower and twilight will begin earlier (around 3 a.m.), making seeing Venus and Mercury a tad more challenging but certainly doable.
To see all five, the best viewing time will be between an hour, 15 minutes to 45 minutes before sunrise. Since getting up at the right time is important, use this sunrise calculator to find when the sun comes up for your location. Remember that you'll have plenty of mornings for a look. It helps that between now (June 17) and early July, Mercury will continue to get brighter and somewhat easier to see.
Planet lines in order of distance from the sun are rather rare. The next morning grouping won't happen until March 2041, while the next visually observable evening gathering occurs in May 2100. Throughout the coming weeks, the planets will shift in position but their full number remains visible until Mercury becomes lost in the solar glare after the first week of July.
My maps should get you there, but I also recommend you install an app on your phone such as Star Chart for iPhone (free) or the Android version . Another excellent program is Sky Safari for iPhone ( Android version ) for $1.99. Download, open and you're ready to go.
Next week, I'll have another installment that includes a how-to on finding the fainter planets, Uranus and Neptune, that will also strut their stuff in the parade.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune.